A LESSON LEARNED

There was no one in town that loved their job more than Chet Sanderson. Being a city employee was a badge of honor he was extremely proud of. It was, by all accounts, a position that almost no one thought he would ever achieve.

Born in 1964 with a developmental disability, very few people believed Chet would ever hold a job or live independently, two things, among many others, that he had accomplished with patience and perseverance.

The city had hired him when he was thirty, and he had been with them ever since. Of course, when he was hired, the city’s population was about half of the twenty-five thousand it was now. Consequently, the community center had grown right along with it. Eventually, Chet had been assigned to the large gymnasium that was added to the complex, and he was overjoyed.

His favorite part of the job was the people who walked each morning for exercise. Most were older folks who were retired – but not all. Others had health issues that required them to engage in physical activity, and some were people who worked from home. But his favorites were the seniors. Each morning they would faithfully stream in, and Chet was always there to meet them.

It was acknowledged by everyone that Chet was the happiest person at the facility. His face literally crinkled when he smiled. The large black mustache that was his dominant feature was unforgettable. As far back as anyone could remember, he had always had that mustache. Of course, that was because he had been here longer than almost anyone else.

The strong feelings Chet had for the senior walkers was happily returned. Everyone loved Chet, and they knew the place would not be the same without him.

The long-time custodian was courteous, helpful and hardworking. He also had a remarkable ability to remember not only names and faces but personal details about who was not feeling well, or who had a medical procedure in the near future. He knew how many children they had and how many grandchildren. And he loved it when they shared their photos with him.

For Chet, the people he saw each day at the gymnasium were not just friends, they were like family, and he genuinely cared about them.

But of all the seniors who walked in the mornings, there was one person, in particular, that was more important to Chet than anyone else. Beverly Graham was eighty-one. A tiny thing who weighed her age. She always had her long silver hair put up in a tight bun, and she wore huge glasses that accentuated her bright blues eyes.

It took several years to get Chet to call her Beverly instead of Mrs. Graham, and she had only succeeded by offering him a bribe. The deal was, if he would call her Beverly, she would bring donuts for the two of them every Wednesday morning.

And so, a weekly tradition was established that had not been interrupted in years. Every Wednesday morning, rain or shine, Beverly arrived with the donuts, and Chet had the coffee ready. Together they would relax and enjoy each other’s company.

However, Chet had no way of knowing that this was also the highlight of her week. Beverly had been a widow for many years, and she had no children. Because she lived alone, the community center was the focal point of her social life, and Chet was her favorite person there.

But recently there had been a change at the facility that had brought in new people – often against their will. The city had enrolled in a program where they provided work for individuals who needed to perform court-ordered community service. Frequently those individuals were sent to the gym where they spent the majority of their time sweeping and mopping.

That is how twenty-one-year-old Trevor Stanton happened to enter the lives of Chet and Beverly.

As part of his punishment for a DUI, a judge had ordered Trevor to complete sixty hours of community service. He was to work at the gymnasium, Monday through Friday, for six hours a day for two weeks.

It would be accurate to say that Trevor was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of spending ten days cleaning – but he had no choice.

Unfortunately, rather than make the best of the situation, he refused to even try to learn from the experience. It didn’t take long before he decided that he particularly hated the mornings with all of the elderly people shuffling around. They made him dread getting old which made him want to get as much out of life as he could while he was young. Even if that meant occasionally breaking the law to do it.

But for Trevor, the absolute worst part of the job was dealing with the disabled man. Chet constantly pestered him wanting to talk about everything under the sun. The insolent community service worker tried to make it obvious to everyone that he wanted nothing to do with them, but this guy just didn’t seem to get it. 

By the third day, Chet was really starting to get on Trevor’s nerves. His constant chatter made the hours drag by. The actual work was bad enough, but putting up with Chet was just too much. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, Trevor could not take anymore.  

Chet came in the gym and made a beeline for him. “Hey, Trevor you want to hear about my dad?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

Chet explained. “I was going to tell you about my dad. He was wonderful. He was in the army, and he fought in a war. I think he was very brave – but he never got the chance to be old.” He waited for Trevor to respond but there was only silence, so he continued. “I don’t know if I could be brave because I was never in the army.”

Trevor laughed out loud. “Of course, you weren’t in the army. Do you honestly think they would take someone like you?”

“What do you mean?”

Trevor could not believe this guy. “You have to be smart to be in the army! You have to have brains. A soldier can’t be like you. Can’t you even understand that much?”

The look that came over Chet’s face made it clear that Trevor had succeeded in hurting him.

“I just wanted to tell you about my dad.”

Trevor wanted to put a stop to this once and for all. “Try to get this through your head. I don’t care about you or your family. Just leave me alone.” 

Chet turned away from Trevor, but instead of being angry, he felt sorry for him. “Okay. I won’t bother you anymore.” He quickly walked away, and from that moment on, he made sure he kept his distance from Trevor. 

But that did not keep Trevor from keeping an eye on him. Trevor could not understand why all of the old people treated the disabled man like he was important. The entire situation made no sense to him. But, ultimately, he just didn’t care. He kept reminding himself that this torture was only going to last for a short time, and then he would be out of there.

Eventually, everyone at the community center gave up trying to be friendly to Trevor. He’d made it clear that he did not want to talk to anyone and so even though everyone had initially been welcoming, they now understood that he had no desire to interact with them.

Each morning Trevor would show up and listlessly go through the motions of what he considered to be demeaning work that was only fit for someone like Chet.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he only had two days left.  

On Thursday around lunchtime, Trevor was half-heartedly pushing a broom over the basketball court when he glanced over at the bleachers and saw the straps of a lady’s purse sticking up. He looked around the large gym to make sure he was alone.  

Once he was certain that was the case, he worked his way over to the bleachers and took his jacket off. He dropped it over the purse and went back to sweeping. This time with far more enthusiasm.

Five minutes later he was finished with his work. He casually walked back to the bleachers and picked up his jacket, making sure that he also grabbed the purse underneath. Then he headed straight for the men’s room where he encountered one person washing his hands. They nodded at each other as the gentleman left.

Trevor stepped into a stall, closed the door, hung his jacket on the hook and opened the purse. Moving the clutter around, he searched until he found a small pocketbook. He opened it up and was shocked to find ten twenty-dollar bills neatly folded up.   

Happily, he pulled up a pant leg, hid the money inside the top of his sock and then lowered the leg of his sweats. He put the pocketbook back in the purse.

Of course, now that he had stolen the money, he needed someone else to take the blame. He only had to think for a few seconds before he realized that Chet would make the perfect fall guy.

Within several minutes he had used the same tactics to place the purse back in the exact spot where he’d found it. He left his jacket next to the purse, and as he waited, he started mopping. It wasn’t long before people began to drift back in from lunch, and, eventually, Chet came into the gym. Trevor saw his opportunity.

He called out as he pointed to his coat. “Chet, would you please bring me my jacket?”

Chet was shocked that Trevor was speaking to him, but it was not in his nature to hold a grudge. “I sure will.” Chet hurried over to the bleachers and picked up the jacket. At the same time, he noticed the purse. He picked up both and walked over to Trevor.

“Thanks. Hey, what have you got there, Chet?”

“I think this is Beverly’s purse. It’s the same color as hers anyway.”

“Oh, wow. She must have forgotten it. You better turn that in. She’ll be looking for it.”

“Yes, I will do that right now.”

“Good job! I’ll make sure you get credit for finding it.” He watched as Chet headed straight to the front desk, and then Trevor began to think about all the things he would like to do with the money, and, having learned nothing from his previous court appearance, he planned to spend at least a portion of it on alcohol.

Later that afternoon, Trevor saw Beverly come in to retrieve her purse. The receptionist gave it to her and Trevor watched as the old lady looked in her pocketbook, and saw the money was missing. But without showing any reaction, she snapped it shut and put it back in her purse. Then she walked over to Chet and the director of the facility and had a brief conversation with them. A few minutes later she left.

Trevor had no way of knowing what she had said, but he was glad to see the director take Chet into his office and close the door. He knew the disabled guy was being fired for stealing, and he couldn’t help but feel happy to be rid of him.  

He went back to sweeping with his usual lack of interest, but a short time later he was shocked when Chet came around the corner carrying a mop and bucket.

Without even thinking, Trevor barked, “Why are you still here?!”

Chet didn’t understand. “What do you mean? I work every day until five o’clock.”

Trevor realized he had to soften his tone so he wouldn’t attract attention. “I saw Beverly pick up her purse a little while ago.”

Chet beamed. “Yes, she thanked me for finding it.”

“Did she say that everything was still in it?”

“Yes. She told me that everything was fine.”

Trevor was confused – but he quickly decided it didn’t really matter. After all, he only had one day left, and then he would never see this place again. 

The next morning was uneventful, and Trevor was happy to go out and grab some lunch. He briefly considered not going back at all, but he was afraid the judge would be strict about meeting all of his service hours so reluctantly he returned for his last afternoon.

When he pulled into the community center parking lot after lunch, he was surprised to so many cars. And when he stepped inside the building, he was again surprised to see the kitchen and dining area filled with colorful party decorations.  

Everyone, it seemed was there. He immediately walked over to Beverly and asked, “What’s all of this about?”

She smiled and said, “It’s for Chet. Today is his anniversary. He’s worked here for twenty-five years!”

Trevor was stunned. He looked at the beautiful birthday cake and asked in disbelief, “All of this for a janitor?”

Firmly, Beverly said, “No. All of this for our friend.”

Trevor stared at her. “What if your friend is not who you think he is?”

Beverly wasn’t sure what he meant.

“What if your friend is, I don’t know, uh – maybe a thief or something?”

A look of disgust came over Beverly’s face. “Chet is not a thief.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I know what kind of person he is. I trust him completely. I have known Chet for more than ten years and he has never once done anything that would lead me to believe that he is capable of such a thing.”

“You can’t know for sure.”

“Mr. Stanton, after two weeks of ignoring him you suddenly seem awfully interested in Chet. Why is that?”

Trevor tried not to let his expression change. “I just think it is something his kind would do.”

His kind?”

“You know what I mean.  People like him can’t be trusted.”

“And people like you can?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Mr. Stanton, the only reason you are here is because you’ve already been in trouble with the law. But still, we tried to welcome you into this place. No one jumped to conclusions about you being that kind of person. However, you chose to reject our overtures of friendship while you paid your debt to society – but we still wish you the best as you move on with your life.”

Trevor persisted. “But the guy is disabled. Maybe his mind doesn’t work right. Maybe he doesn’t have a conscience. Obviously, there is something wrong with him.”

Beverly fixed Trevor with a hard stare. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Chet’s humanity. And I’m sorry, but I hardly think you are in a position to judge someone else.”

“You don’t know me.”

“That is true. But by the same token, you don’t know me or Chet. However, I am a pretty good a reading people, and from what I’ve seen of your behavior, I do not think you are worthy to be Chet’s friend.”

“Oh, my God! The guy is pathetic. Why would I want to be his friend?”

Beverly took a deep breath and spoke carefully. “Other than my husband, the relationship I’ve had with Chet for the last ten years has been the most beautiful in my life. It has been pure and honest. And I’m sorry if I offend you, but I think honesty is something you struggle with.”

Trevor wasn’t interested in the opinion of an old lady, but she wasn’t through.  

“Chet was only three years old when his father was killed while serving in Vietnam. His mother never remarried so he was an only child. Growing up with an intellectual challenge and without a dad was not an easy life. But just look at him. His incredible attitude is something you would do well to emulate.”

“I don’t understand any of you people. The guy is a complete loser, and you all treat him like he’s important.”

“No. We treat him like a person. We treat him with the dignity and respect he deserves. It is my hope that someday you will have earned the right to be treated with respect. But that is entirely up to you. No one can make that happen for you.”

Trevor had heard enough, but as he turned to walk away, Chet came through the front door from his lunch hour. Everyone in the room yelled “Surprise!!”

Chet stopped in his tracks. He looked around and asked, “What’s going on?”

Beverly stepped forward. “This is all for you, Chet! We wanted to celebrate your twenty-fifth anniversary.”

All the people who meant so much to him began to shout their congratulations.

As Chet stood and looked around the room his eyes filled with tears. “Thank you all so much. This is wonderful!”

Trevor stood in amazement watching the outpouring of love for a man who mopped floors and cleaned toilets.  

Beverly had something else to say so she waited for the room to settle down. Then she looked at her dear friend and said, “We took up a collection and raised $200.00 to buy you a wonderful gift – but, unfortunately, I misplaced the money and I can’t find it.” She turned and looked directly at Trevor. “I’m so sorry, Chet. It was my fault.”

Trevor Stanton remained motionless as Chet said, “That’s okay. I don’t need a gift. Having all of you here at this party is more than I could’ve dreamed of!”

Everyone gathered around their friend and gave him cards filled with love and best wishes. Soon the cake was cut and people enjoyed the opportunity to let Chet know what he meant to them.

Trevor stood and watched for a few minutes, but finally, he couldn’t resist approaching Beverly with a question. “What was this $200.00 gift you were going to give Chet.”  

“Does it really matter to you?”

“Yeah, I want to know.” He shook his head in wonder. “I can’t begin to imagine what kind of an expensive gift you would waste money on for a person like that.” 

Beverly struggled to control her anger. “The money was going to be used for photo restoration.”

Trevor couldn’t help but laugh. “Photo restoration?! I don’t get it. What kind of gift is that for a disabled guy?”

Beverly was running out of patience. “First of all, Chet is not a disabled guy. He is a man with a disability. And as I told you before, when he was very young, Chet lost his father in Vietnam. He has photos of his Dad, some of which were taken while he was overseas, but they are in such terrible condition that you can’t really make out the images anymore……But those pictures are his most important possessions.”

Ever so slowly, an uneasiness began to creep over Trevor.

Beverly continued. “This afternoon I was going to take Chet to the company that does the restoration. I had planned to have him choose which photos he wanted to be restored. Since his mother is deceased, those damaged photos are the only memories he has of his father.”

Beverly shook her head and walked away, leaving the community service worker feeling an emotion he had never experienced before; guilt.

Sadly, Trevor Stanton had spent the bulk of his young life thinking only of himself. He had little concern for others, and he saw the world only in terms of how it related to him. So – since he didn’t care about anyone else – he never felt guilty about his behavior. 

But, for some reason, the affection that everyone had for a man that Trevor believed did not matter, caused him, for the first time, to consider the consequences of his actions. 

Suddenly, Trevor felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and there was Chet holding out a large piece of cake on a paper plate. “Here you go, Trevor. This cake is really good!” 

Trevor studied the individual in front of him for a few seconds, and for the first time since they met, he stopped thinking of Chet as someone whose life had no meaning, and instead, he saw him as a complete person. A person who Trevor knew was loved and respected far more than he was.  

Taking the piece of cake, he softly said, “Thanks, Chet. And congratulations on twenty-five years.”

“Thank you!”

Chet moved on and Trevor watched him for a moment. Twenty-five years. That was longer than he had been alive. 

Trevor took a bite of cake, but he didn’t have much of an appetite. He thought about how he had shown up in this peaceful place and disrupted everything in just a few days – but he had to admit it was what he always did. He repeatedly screwed things up for himself and everyone else.

Glancing around, he noticed Beverly near the kitchen talking to some other ladies. Instantly, he knew what he had to do.

Trevor quickly walked over to her and gently said, “Please, wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Beverly watched through the sliding glass doors as Trevor went out to his car, opened the passenger door and, although it was difficult to tell for sure, appeared to reach into the glove box. He hurried back into the building and walked straight over to her.

Leaning down he whispered, “Please, come with me for a second.”

Trevor led her through the kitchen into a hallway where they were alone. He looked around just to be sure there was no one else close by and then he held out his hand with ten twenty-dollar bills.

“I’m sure you’ll have to report this, and I will be in even more trouble – but, after I was so selfish, I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Beverly looked intently at him for several seconds before she took the money. “Well……it seems to me that the money that was lost has been found. I don’t think there is anything to report.”

Trevor looked at her in disbelief. How could all of the men and women in this place be so good? He had never encountered anyone like this. The people he hung out with were just like him. And suddenly he realized that just maybe that was part of his problem.

Beverly smiled warmly at Trevor. “I don’t know what the future holds for you, Mr. Stanton. But you have certainly taken a step in the right direction. Thank you for returning our money.”

She paused and then said, “I want you to know that Chet’s father was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. That is the second-highest medal the army bestows. He was killed while saving other lives. He was in every sense a hero. But to Chet, he is just the father he was never allowed to know. Restoring his photos will bring him great joy.”

Ashamed to face her, Trevor looked down at his feet. “I’m sorry I took the money. I wish I could go back in time so none of this happened.”

Beverly had no desire to judge the young man. “Mr. Stanton, making mistakes is how we learn. One bad choice brought you here, and now you have learned another valuable lesson……But what I hope you really understand is that just because people are older doesn’t mean their lives don’t matter. Someday you will be our age, and I’m sure you’ll want people to treat you with the dignity you deserve.

“But most of all, I hope you now realize that Chet is a person just like you and me. And, therefore, he deserves to be understood, appreciated and accepted as an equal.

“Now, I know you haven’t asked for any advice, but I do want to say that it has been my experience that treating other people well, affects how you treat yourself. Perhaps you would value yourself more – if you value other people.”

Trevor slowly lifted his head and looked at her. “But I know what kind of person I am. I don’t try. I always take the easy way out.”

“Please stop and think for a moment. Was it easy for you to return our money thinking that you were going to be in more trouble?” 

“No, it wasn’t – because I was scared. But for once I wanted to take responsibility for what I did.”

“In other words, you cared about Chet, me and the others.”

“Yes. I was sorry that I hurt all of you – but especially Chet.”

Beverly knew that this was a day that could be a turning point in Trevor’s life. “I just want you to know that I forgive you for taking the money, and I’m proud of you for returning it.”

Trevor was surprised to hear her say she was proud of him, and it made him feel good. “Thank you. I understand what you mean about respecting people.”

He smiled at her and said, “And I’m going to start doing that right now.” 

Trevor walked over to a table where Chet was talking with a couple. He surprised all of them by sitting down and joining the conversation. They all chatted for a few minutes, and then the couple left.

For a short time, the two men sat across the table from each other in awkward silence. But finally, Trevor said, “Chet, I want to apologize for the way I’ve treated you the last two weeks. You have tried over and over to be friendly, but each time I just pushed you away. I was wrong, and I realize that now.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

“You should feel blessed that you have worked here for twenty-five years and that so many people love you.”

Then Trevor said something that made Chet’s face light up with delight. “If you don’t mind, could you please tell me about a little bit about your dad?” 

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